Eighteen. Hearts first team. Top of the league. Unbeaten. Edinburgh derby. Robbie Buchanan is living the proverbial dream at the moment.
The teenager’s progress into the senior squad at Tynecastle has overwhelmed him and both his parents. For all their disbelief, they can’t get enough of the surrealism.
Buchanan doesn’t turn 19 until next year but finds himself playing at Easter Road and Tynecastle in a side which is so far untouchable in the league under head coach Robbie Neilson.
The experience is daunting and demanding on his young body and mind, but the forward is relishing every second. Substitute appearances in Hearts’ last two matches, against Hibs and Raith Rovers, whetted his appetite for first-team football and he now wants another outing against Falkirk tomorrow.
“It’s great experience for me and it’s great to have a chance so early,” said Buchanan, speaking to the Evening News in his first newspaper interview. “I didn’t expect it because I’m so far down the line when it comes to strikers, but it’s great he’s giving me a chance in the bigger games. The scores have been 1-0 and 1-1 so it’s not like we’ve been 4-0 up. Going on in games like that is brilliant.
“I thought I would maybe be struggling to get into under-20 squads at times this season, but I’ve pushed myself to the stage where I’m getting on the bench for the first team.
“It’s really hard to take it in. I didn’t think I’d get this opportunity so soon. I didn’t even think I’d get it with Hearts. Getting a chance this early in the season – we’re not even at Christmas yet – is great. Hopefully I can get more.”
For mum and dad, it’s a little more testing on the heart. “My mum can’t take it in. She’s buzzing from all of it,” laughed Buchanan. “My dad said he had tears in his eyes when I came on against Hibs. My mum couldn’t handle it. She decided not to go to Easter Road – it was too much for her. At least my dad was there to see it.”
Granting the 18-year-old a league debut in an Edinburgh derby is evidence of how highly Neilson rates Buchanan.
“He just told me to go out and do what I can do, that I’ve got nothing to fear. He told me to try and keep the team up the pitch and nick us a wee goal. We eventually got the goal in the end [though Alim Ozturk] while I was on the pitch and that was a brilliant feeling.
“Jack Ross [Hearts Under-20 coach] had told me right at the start of the week that I would be involved in the squad for the Hibs game so I was prepared. I knew I might have had a chance of playing so I just prepared for the match. Jack told me I might end up getting my first league appearance, so I was ready for it.”
Appearing on the touchline at Tynecastle last Saturday was an altogether more jolting experience.
“That was harder for me than coming on at Easter Road. It was more daunting. The fans are so close to the pitch and there are so many Hearts fans there. They expect so much from you. They were getting anxious at that time as well because the score was only 1-0. They wanted us to push forward and you can hear them all round about you. You’re trying to get the team pushed forward and then you give the ball away. It’s murder,” he laughed.
Buchanan hails from Blantyre in South Lanarkshire and joined Hearts at the age of 13. He was released by Rangers after the arrival of Jim Sinclair at Murray Park as youth academy director. Within two days Hearts had called to invite him for a trial and he signed after just two training sessions.
His progress through the Riccarton youth academy has been steady but he received a timely kick up the backside at the end of last season. That partly led to his recent first-team promotion.
“I’ve been working a lot harder in training recently,” he explained. “They told me at the end of last season when they were giving me the second year of my contract that I had to buck up my ideas because I was slacking. I was told to start doing better in training and push for a place in the squads. I took it on board and now I’m getting my chance. I’ve been doing pretty decent in the under-20 games and this has come for me at the right time.
“The strikers have been doing really well and we’re on this unbeaten run, so it’s great to be getting involved. I do think we could pick up a loss during the season but we’re doing well just now. Hopefully we can keep it going over the next few weeks and I can stay in the squad as well.
“With the forwards Hearts have, for them to give me a chance just now is brilliant. We have some very good players and I’m still getting opportunities in amongst them, so I’m doing okay.”
Although not a local lad, the passion of the Hearts support has got under Buchanan’s skin. The club’s troubles over the last 18 months have been well documented but, if anything, it gave fans a chance to openly display their devotion to the cause. It hasn’t gone unnoticed, even by young kids like Buchanan.
“The supporters are unbelievable. The passion they have for their club is brilliant,” he continued. “They’re all up for it and supporting the team all the way after all the troubles they’ve had. They always stay behind the team and it’s good to be part of that.
“Hopefully I can keep getting into the under-20 squads and play well for them. Then I’d like to start working my way into the first team and get a wee start at some point.”
The plan is clear in his mind. So, where exactly will he play long term? Striker is Buchanan’s favourite position, followed by wide right. He does have a secret weapon up his sleeve, though. “They play me at right-back sometimes. I can play anywhere, to be fair. I don’t mind where it is, as long as I’m getting my chance.”
He’s getting it at the moment, and much earlier than he thought possible. For the foreseeable future, Robbie Buchanan intends to hang on to the coat tails of a crusade aimed at winning the SPFL Championship. Not a bad life for an 18-year-old.